324. Stains, Repairs and Marriage.

So the decks off the back of my house needed to be repaired and stained yet again. They are twenty years old, maybe 22.  It doesn’t matter. They have been exposed to the blistering southern sun and cold western winds that sometimes whip against my house all these years. Rain is never far off for long in South Central PA, so the old pressure treated wood rarely gets to dry out. Then the filthy maple tree drops leaves and helicopters and bird poop steadily from April to October. All this exposure encourages warping, splintering and cracking. You don’t think on the last day of construction that you are obligating yourself to ongoing maintenance, not when everything is new and clean, straight and plumb, square and true. The piney smell of fresh sawdust sprinkles the air above the decks on the day you walk across their near perfection. Like a brand new marriage on your wedding day, you can’t see the splintering flaws hidden in your future. They are unimaginable. What could possibly go wrong?

My friend Jeff built these decks and the staircase that connects them way back when. He did a great job at cost, leaving me to finish the pickets and the braces, as well as finishing the installation of lag bolts here and there. I know I got the pickets installed, forgot the braces and might have installed the lag bolts incorrectly. It didn’t seem to matter because the decks looked so good. I put the tools away and just enjoyed what was there. From the start of it all, you see, I slacked.

Just for the sake of comparison, I got married 36 years ago. Yup. Been many a storm and drought in those years. Lots of bird poop and dead leaves have fallen on us, but so has new growth and some amazing blessings.  Three wonderful daughters any parent would be proud of. A great son in law. An adorable granddaughter. Like our old double decks, our marriage looked good from a distance. If you walked around my marriage often enough, however, you’d notice the sway and unevenness here and there. The corners were pulling out of square. The steps wiggled a bit. A couple of short cuts were visible. Things didn’t line up exactly and gaps appeared. Oh well, that’s okay. Good enough. It would not collapse outright, but it might be unsafe without routine inspection and maintenance… because I slacked at times. Nails instead of screws, screws instead of bolts. A good deck needs nothing but use, right?

So this past weekend I power-washed both decks and the staircase in the middle of a rainstorm. I blasted old stains, mildew, dirt and gunk for three plus hours. This rain soaked duty is something I would never have willingly done if it weren’t for the acute urgency I felt to make changes now. I’d been a poor and lazy steward of these decks. The steps had not been stained last time around I noticed. Likely because I’d said to myself, “I’ll get back to that” and never did. Many thoughts passed through my mind on that rainy day. Remorse and hope arm wrestled one another like I wrestled the power washer wand. “Why did it have to come to this point? Clearly it did not. Neglect, whether of a person or a thing, leads to decay.”

Nails had worked themselves up and out of their holds mysteriously. It was a simple matter to pound them back in or replace them with galvanized deck screws. I felt a measure of self contempt and self satisfaction as I repaired the results of my neglect. I looked at my physical efforts as half a metaphor for my marriage relationship: can I do the same things with my good, solid wife? Can I draw the corners of our relationship back into square and make our rails plumb? And what did I contribute to their warping? My harsh judgments had been blisteringly unforgiving, simmering under the painted surfaces, cooking the sap of her timbers. My icy words and frosty silences froze her heartwood, cracking and swelling each carefully laid board. I did not cherish or respect her enough to do the needed maintenance cheerfully. Only when life was power washing me did I do the right stuff.

I bit my lip harder as I self confessed my arrogant stupidity. Twenty years ago I used to paint others’ houses with great care and precision, taking great pains to make them look good. Many a fellow painter said to me, “Just make it look good from the street.” That rubbed me the wrong way.  Yet, in retrospect, I see that I did to my house what I did to my marriage and family: I often gave my best overs to others and my left overs to my loved ones. Who does this? Who is more present, respectful, patient, etc.  for strangers than for their own family?

The answer is a moron, i.e., me.

I remembered the old joke about the painter who thinned the paint he used for painting the church’s steeple. He thought no one would notice and he’d pocket the difference. As he was finishing the scam, the voice of God shook his scaffolding.

“Clarence, you have cheated the church and me. You did not cheapen the paint but you did cheapen yourself. You have seriously sinned here, Bro.”

Clarence, “Lord, Lord, I am sorry. What should I do?”

The Lord, “Repaint, repaint and thin no more.”

As I reclined with a sore back that night, I thought about those braces. I had bought some 2×4’s along with extra stain. Before the sun went down, I went back out and  cut and screwed three of them on the diagonal into the staircase supports. Amazingly the wobble was gone. The shaky shake stairs were suddenly rock solid. I was thrilled with the difference. I could not wait for my wife to walk down them like a new bride– safely, steadily and securely on a fresh new promise.

“Repent, repent and sin no more.” I can do the first and struggle hard against the second… but only through the power of my gracious God can I succeed. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

260. Paint by numbers: Good intentions, old regrets and the unpolluted future

“Cliches, Anyone? Two for a dollar. Get you some red hot clichés. Right here. Buy one for your girlfriend, Buddy.” I have many well worn phrases and stories that I’ve passed out in therapy sessions like old buttons that fell off some threadbare pants or an ancient stringy sweater. Some are my own fabrications in the truest sense. I made them up, I think. In an old post, 205, I mentioned the turtles, coke machines and ducks analogies/parables that have come to me in sessions, figuratively speaking, I mean. Animals don’t make therapy appointments. People do. All sorts of people, and I have to try and figure out how to connect to their pain using only words.

One time I recall a guy telling me that he felt like a man with a knife in his heart. “I’m a dead man walking. See, if I leave it in, I die. If I pull it out, I just die faster.” He was an overly dramatic convicted drug dealer in the county jail waiting to go up state.   I processed his powerful image and thought there ought to be an answer in metaphor land that could solve this bloody morbid riddle. Hmmm. It dawned on me that if one pulled the knife out ever so slowly, allowing the wound to  heal every millimeter or so, that in metaphorical theory physics, one could pull a knife out of a human heart without death resulting. I offered him this solution. Fortunately for both of us he accepted it in theory. In practical terms, however, it would be difficult to get dressed daily with a knife handle sticking out of your chest. Then there’s the dry cleaning bills. And the jokes…”Ed, you look stuck.” “Yep, I just can’t get a handle on this thing.”

Other clients explain dysfunction in their lives with vaguely broad statements like “I’m a people pleaser. I’m a peacemaker. I avoid confrontation.”  Word play helps here, so I’ve found. Not to be cruel, but I point out honestly, “You know I’ve noticed that people pleasers are never pleased. Why is that?” “Cuz we’re too damn busy keeping everyone else happy.”  In a similar manner I’ve been known to say, “Peace makers are never at peace, you know?  They’re always shuttling about making everyone else comfortable, carrying the mail back and forth between two or more pissed off parties.” Well, you’d think that I shot the Pope. “So you don’t like peace, is that it?”  “No, I believe in peace based on truth and transparency not a peace that is based on not hurting anyone’s feelings.”  Ohh!!!   And to the avoiders of confrontation, I share, “If you avoid anything long enough, do you know what you get?”  “What?”  “A _______Void.”  “Truth, Brother. Hard as a kidney stone. Amen.”

Time and water and mood states work well on a spectrum.  Huh?  Time exists in three general concepts– past, present, future. Water exists in  three states– ice, liquid, and steam. Moods exist in shrinking depression, flexible adaptation in the moment, and in expansive anxiety. Interestingly enough, depressed folks tend to move slowly and perseverate on their frozen pasts. Healthy people move appropriately in the flowing liquid now, where healthy life is lived. Anxious folks live in the what if future as they come unglued and scream out gaseously like superheated teakettles. They bang against the windowpane of tomorrow trying to avoid their present emotions; while their depressed first cousins soak in ancient ice baths. It’s only the present folks who can breath freely and move and feel genuinely.

I remember a woman who tried to stop time. Her husband died suddenly at 42, leaving her a widow mother of five children. Shock and grief overrode her reality. Understandable, right? I mean after an emotional tsunami, what else do you expect? She developed a coping strategy based on fantasy, magical thinking really. If she did not change anything in her house, if she hoarded everything, then maybe her husband would come back from the grave one day and just resume life as it was in 1972. Believing this myth was less awful than believing the waterboarded truth that she was a widow with five young kids depending on her to meet their endless needs. No furniture could be moved, no walls painted, no appliance changed out. Obviously this myth was unsustainable, but like any good cultic belief it could be edited as needed,  and  it was. The organic parts of her life continued to grow and decay despite her fervent worship of the myth. Kids grew up. She ticked on like a broken clock whose hands could only stutter in place. She stored her wedding ring in a soup can that innocent cleaners took to the dump.

Irvin Yalom wrote a book called Love’s Executioner. He suggested that it is the role of a therapist at times to execute love. Now there are two or more meanings for the verb execute but not for executioner, the noun, i.e., the killer. Who wants to tell a nice widow mother of five that her husband is never coming back and she needs to find another way to do life? Like the drug dealer above, this honesty would be a chef’s knife through her weakly beating heart. Sometimes the disorder is kinder than the cure, though both are deadly.

I knew another woman who was so bitter about men who had hurt her throughout her life. Her solution was bitter isolation in a bunker lifestyle. A vicious guard dog named Sarcasm patrolled her property day and night. “Bitter Acres. Go Away!” her sign announced to visitors who never came. Listening to her strategy of eking out a miserable life till she died a miserable death, it occurred to me that bitterness is like a barbed wire bra worn to defend against potential perpetrators…but the only one to be hurt for sure is the wearer of the contraption. “That’s easy for you to say. You were never raped by a relative, were you? And you don’t have to sit across the holiday table from him every Christmas and try not to vomit while he spouts his Christian platitudes and conservative right wing politics.”

No, thank God, all I have to do is try to meet the survivors at the bonfire where pain and grief and worry are incinerated. When the dead are too many or too big to be buried, a fire of bones is in order.

 

 

 

 

251. Man Your Manure Spreaders

So the elections rolled across America yesterday and a new red map resulted. Not that it matters much. New liars will posture and promise and lie to us. Instead of blue-eyed liars we will endure redheaded liars for the next two to six years. Pundits and political planners are in a tizzy now for the meaning of it all, how it will all play out in the presidential election of 2016. Well, it will be what it will be. In a post Obama world we will be no better off than in the post Bush world, anymore than we were better off in a post Clinton world or a post Reagan world. Thank God for term limits. They guarantee a new herd of swine at the public trough with new, meaningless toots of verbal flatulence. Like pigs, politicians can eat and talk simultaneously because they use different ends of their anatomy for each function.

So on the way into town this morning I noticed that the left lane was slowing down behind a green and brown blinking vehicle up ahead. I pulled into the right lane and accelerated. As I got closer I recognized the back of the machine as a manure spreader heading into our fair town. The sulfurous stench of liquefied cow poop enveloped me and my car. I had pulled in behind it where two lanes merge into one; passing was not an option now. I had noticed the other cars were giving it a wide berth. Once I fell in line behind it I realized why. Gaggingly gross, sort of like politics, I thought. It crossed my mind that politics always stinks and brings you to tears. It doesn’t matter who is driving; politics is a nasty business.

I wondered if the driver of this stink wagon was Republican or Democrat. It was clearly an expensive rig pulled along by a high tech tractor with a closed cab, heated seats, satellite radio, and a deodorizer/ air purification system. Besides, the politician driving was upwind from his load of manure. He was clean and fresh and seemingly immune from it all on his comfy John Deere throne. He turned right onto Fifth Avenue, proving to me that he was indeed a Republican. You see if it had been a Democrat, he would have gotten stuck under the railroad overpass like many a truck driver does, bringing traffic to a halt until air could be let out of the tires to lower the vehicle an inch or two.  Then he would have turned the wrong way at the square into oncoming traffic. That’s the only way I can keep the two parties straight in my mind is by the mistaken policies they each cling to.

Republicans roll their poop  wagons into town promising tax cuts, jobs for all, and prosperity for few. They decry large government, foreigners, welfare programs for the less fortunate, gun control, and they promise to shrink government after they deregulate and weaken it for their cronies’ benefit. They question all critics’ patriotism and suggest that anyone who disagrees with them is a socialist, drug addicted, progressive, anti-Christian hater of the Motherland. When they leave office, they write books and go to work for exorbitant pay at private industries they used to regulate.

Now Democrats roll their poop wagons into town promising fairness and equality for you and me and the foreigner behind the tree. They pick different winners and losers. They promise tax fairness and raise taxes somewhere to pay for the expansion of government everywhere. They question all critics’ humanity and suggest that anyone who disagrees with them is a heartless fascist, elite, repressive right wing Christian hater of the Motherland. When they leave office, they write books and go to work for exorbitant pay at private industries they used to regulate.

One thing is certain: agreement is never possible or they’d be out of a job, snap, just like that. Contention is the thing that keeps job security going on till death. Inflated rhetoric and drama are the fuel.  Why problem solve when you can blame? Problem solving takes time and patience and thinking and determination and cooperation. Blame requires none of that. Blame is a low cost start up. See it’s as easy as pointing. A two year old can point at the family dog when cookies go missing. It’s that simple.

Agreement and cooperation, negotiation, and compromise shrink the gap between the two party finger pointing. Like the argument between guns or butter for homeland security, prisons or education for crime, treatment or incarceration for drugs, etc. As long as we stand on the wings and scream into the void, the void wins, growing wider with each election cycle. If we don’t fill in the void and find common ground, then we are left to sharpening partisan scalpels for two years while funding hate ads. How you frame the question also predetermines the possible answers you get.  If the question is always framed as either A or B, then the only answers possible are A or B. What if the correct answer is Both? Or Neither? Well, within that framework, you/we are out of luck. See, it’s either more prisons or more education. It’s either tax cuts or maintaining social programs. How about a little of both?

If you think you can just retire to Costa Rica or New Zealand, let me share one last encounter with manure. I was out jogging around the farms behind my house a few years ago. I saw a manure spreader rolling across a harvested cornfield. I identified the splash zone and figured that I’d just stay far enough away from that spewing poop fountain to stay dry. Well, I miscalculated. As I jogged around that field, the atomized liquid manure caught me downwind and settled like droplets of horrible dew on my hair and face and clothes. Disgust filled me and I felt biologically violated. I stopped in mid stride as the vaporized excrement actually caught in the back of my throat, activating my gag reflex. Yeah, inescapable as taxes and death… Politics.

 

239. Happiness or Joy?

After.

This morning the Stones “Happy” is rocking out of my computer. “I need love to keep me happy, baby, keep me happy. Happy, baby won’t you keep me happy?” Keith Richards wrote and recorded the song in four hours and sings the lead. No surprise. I read his autobiography a few years ago. If you cut out the drugs and sex and craziness, a 600 page book shrinks to 60. Richards is probably as well known for his drug use as for his music. I’m not here to bust Keith again. I think he’s had enough of that. (I mean, at his heroin peak even his dry cleaner could have been busted for possession.) Rather, I want to look at his lyric of continuous need as being another way of expressing addiction.

Addicts don’t choose. After a while they are “chosen” by their drug to ingest more or to withdraw or to itch, vomit or die. Addiction seems like one of the best tools Satan ever helped construct. The foretaste and promise of ecstatic freedom that results from astral levels of dopamine leads to a barren prison cell in the desert when that psychedelic elevator crashes. At first blush the drug struts down the high fashion catwalk looking like a fallen angel of pleasure. Some intense desire is fostered in the user that feels like falling in love with infinity. A physical, emotional, and spiritual high lifts the user up out of his mundane world. On later inspection this elevation is seen to be the hoisting of a carcass to make butchering easier for the Butcher. Happy at that point in the game is merely the appearance of functioning in civil society. That runway high fashion model turns out to be a drag queen hooker sweating it out to get by for another hour. It doesn’t matter where you begin with addiction; the terminal points are the same for all– devastati0n and death.

Another song that comes up in my cue is Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. It’s pretty clear that bad things are going on. Frankie Lee/Everyman needs money and then winds up in some sort of brothel dying of thirst. Meanwhile, Judas Priest/Satan, is more than happy to oblige his needs. Are these two separate persons or two personas battling for the soul of one man? I don’t know. It has the feel of a condensed morality play, though. Some souls are stolen and others  sold daily at yard sale prices by their former owners. Some are rent-to -own deals. I think that’s how it is with addiction– a pay as you go reverse mortgage. At the end of the term you are evicted from your own life.

Before.
Despite what our Declaration of Independence claims, the pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand. Happy is an emotion, a mere snowflake on your fingertip that melts before you can put it on your tongue. Nothing more than a pleasant sneeze. And yet, if you ask educated adult Americans what they most desire, the most common answer given is “I want to be happy.” And then what? “Happy” comes from the old word “hap” which means “luck”. “Hap” or “happy” is what happens, and is merely a derivative of luck. Who would hook his wagon to a lucky meteorite?  A gambling addict.
“I can quit whenever I want to.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Yeah, but that’s a hedge to hide behind. It’s circular logic and dishonest.”
“Hey, I’ll quit when I run out of money or drugs or smokes or liquor, or when I die. Okay?  Like I said, whenever I want to.”
“I’m afraid you’re confusing “want to” with “have to”.
“Whatever. I don’t want to. Okay? I want the complete annihilation of needs and wants. There, how’s that answer?”
“It resonates as truth to me. Thank you. Oh, look!  Three cherries. You win another fix. Powder or crystal?”
 At the other end of the pool is joy. Joy can be a mood state as opposed to an emotion. Joy can be maintained without a steady stream of hits or fixes. In some way it’s a transcendence of need or want. To choose joy is to rise above the mundane and stay there despite one’s circumstances. It’s a courageous choice not a cowardly default. Joy has a longer shelf life than mere happiness. It does not simply happen. It is chosen like a partner for life. Many times throughout a marriage one partner can legitimately claim to be miserable but still faithfully love the other partner. Happiness may not be present but joy is.

My buddy Quasimoto, Sr. got a bum deal in his recent hip surgery.  The anesthesiologist nicked his sciatic nerve during the epidural procedure. Good news: the hip is healing just fine. Bad news: his foot is on fire with nerve pain as if his foot is being dragged behind an eighteen wheeler across Death Valley in August at noon. Merciless. And yet his foot is numb, immovable. Is he happy?  Heck no. Does he have joy?  Actually he has Pat, and she is the definition of joy. Her loving cup is bottomless. Despite all the unnecessary pain that could lead one to fetch a ball bat and swing it through a doctor’s office or just call a sharky lawyer, Quasi continues pushing the rock uphill. He has no guarantee  that he will recover, ever. It’s been five weeks and not much has changed yet. Their travel plans have been shelved for now because of a two millimeter mistake. But their rusty days are overlaid with gold leaf joy, thanks to Pat.
Despite the pain, helplessness and anger, they hang together and, I believe, grow their marriage even stronger in its tenth year not because of bliss or comfort but due to pain and suffering.  Huh? Yeah, that’s not a typo. Because of pain and suffering grinding the surfaces between them, Pat and Quasi can bond even better than before. Being a woodworker, Quasi knows that if you want to unlock the beauty of a fine piece of wood, you have to punish it by sanding it over and over again. And that is where they are right now, in the deep sanding that reveals the deepest beauty. It’s counterintuitive that joy overflows throughout the punishing process, but happiness can’t stand the sawdust where joy stands alone.

235. Dry eyes

 I’ve had numerous clients over the years who have complained that they cannot cry or sustain weeping if they ever do have tears. What’s up with that?  The problem is not a lack of sadness, fear, trauma, or chaos. It’s a lack of direct connection to their feelings. Crying is a natural physiological reaction to certain stressors or mood states. How then do some folks manage to override nature and shut down the crying reaction?  You can find out about types of tears on the internet. Go ahead, no, wait, well I’ll just tell you. There are three types; the first two are not connected to emotions but to basic physiological functions of lubrication and defending against irritation. The third type, emotional tears, is what I’m talking about.

One person I know claims that she cried so much when her father died that she resolved to never be that vulnerable again. As a result she built up psychological walls and filters to prevent her from crying at all. If a tear should ever surprise her, as it has on occasion, she distracts herself, looks away, and reverses gravity somehow to reel her tears backwards, like rewinding an old videotape.  Any emotion in the sadness neighborhood is locked down also, so her range of emotions is narrower than most folks. You see, you can’t just trap one emotion without trapping a cluster of them, a constellation if you will. Emotions are like mice scurrying about your psychological cheese. Think about that for a moment. As a result she laughed a lot and maintained a helium balloon persona for the world to witness. Something was/is wrong, though. When adults strike you as cartoon characters, something is missing.

PhotoThen there’s Justin. He is proudly stoic. “Tears are weakness”, he says without any hesitation. “My mother abused me as a kid with anything that was handy… a wooden spoon, clothes hanger, toys. It didn’t matter. She was determined to make me cry. I refused and it made her all the madder. She’d say, ‘ I’ll make you cry!’ But I just bit down on my lip and gritted my teeth. I was not gonna let that witch see tears on my face. Not then not now. Nobody makes me cry, ever. When I was older, I’d laugh in her face. It pissed her off so much. It was like me spanking her.” Well, that’s the mechanism to shut off the tears. Problem is that emotional tears need to be shed. No matter how many you suck back or blink away, there are millions ready to burst forth. Tears have a job to do

Emotional tears are different from lubricating or anti-irritant tears. Apparently they are full of components lacking in  the other two, like red wine compared to plain water. It’s funny that such tears would be chemically different under analysis, something we know intuitively when somebody’s eyes are smoked out or under the influence of onion vapors. Emotional tears work in conjunction with facial expressions and vocalizations, body language and gestures that tell of the feelings connected to the tears. There is a matching context usually. Tears are the blood of emotions.

Sometimes at death tears won’t come to the grievers. Some may be in shock while others are tangled up in complex mixtures of fear and anger and love. At my father’s funeral I could not find a tear. I was stoic and reserved. My conscious mind was in “fix it” mode. What to do with our mother? What were the new expectations after my father’s death?  He was such an odd duck that it would be hard to grieve his passing at 68 years of age.  He smoked himself to death with Camel cigarettes over 50 years. My mother labeled him “an emotional cripple”, incapable of appropriate emotional articulation. He did not, however, cripple himself; he had help.

I think it was two years later that I was overcome with a delayed wailing  and whimpering of grief while watching the baseball movie “Field of Dreams” in my family room.  I got sucked into the story and the emotions involved as the protagonist tried to fulfill a mission given to him by an other worldly message coming out of a rookie farmer’s cornfield. “Ease his pain.” “If you build it, he will come.” “Go the distance.” My father was my baseball coach and originated from Boston. One of the clues involved in solving the mystery was obtained at Fenway Park… and I came unglued. Thought I was losing my mind. Fortunately my wife was consoling and wise. She sat with me and said, “You never cried at your dad’s death.” However this attack was not only tears but an intestinal tearing of emotional tumors that I spewed up. I was prostrate, gagging, emotionally vomiting.  I could not understand this horrific upchucking of undigestible dead animals dislodged from my stomach walls.

I asked God to take it from me; I didn’t want it anymore, though I was not certain what “it” was at that time. My head throbbed; my throat was raw; and my tear ducts were pumped dry. How could this be? Well, there’s a lot more to a human being than the conscious world, folks. You can carry disease or tumors or parasites in you all your life and not know it. It’s not such a big jump to memories and ungrieved losses hanging around the storage bins of your mind. Remember the mice analogy?  Well they were running wild all over my being when I saw Burt Lancaster tip his hat, knowing that he was dead and the heroes of this ballgame were all long dead. The infamous Black Sox of 1919, my dad would have known that story well. He would have known the weirdness of unfulfilled dreams that Lancaster’s character portrayed. He would have wept easily and often throughout this film, completely unable to articulate his feelings further than lachrymosity.

I watched the movie again a couple of nights later. I had a similar reaction at the same places in the movie. I was convinced that I had tripped onto something profound in my psychic life. Grief pressure poured out the second time, but it was not as crazy scary as the first go around. A little finch of wisdom sat on my shoulder, chittering, “It’s okay”.

 

232. My Personal Paint-by-Number Vietnam

So my daughter reminded me of a dark episode in my life when I was stuck with the endless paint job from hell. It was 1993, I think. Back in those days I painted houses over the summers when I was “off” from my teaching job. I had a full schedule that summer, but I received a desperate phone call from a woman I used to work with who was moving back to Turtle Town after years in Florida. You see, I had painted her last house in this area and it met with her expectations, so naturally I had to paint the local home she had just purchased. I made minor excuses on the phone why I could not possibly take on her job… the summer was nearly over, I did not have the man power, I was already tired, etc. She  pleaded. I relented. I took ownership of her imaginary problem. Never, bloggy wogs, never take ownership of others’ problems. Why? Because their problem becomes your problem times ten, and you wind up like the U.S. did in Vietnam, fighting someone else’s unwinnable battle with no dignified way out. Oh, and covered in pigeon crap from head to toe.

I believe the draft call came in August. Ellen charmed as much as she could. Could I at least come and give an estimate? My paint partner knew intuitively that nothing good could possibly come from this. He warned me. I ignored him. God bless him, he came along on the estimate to try and keep me from disaster, though he clearly stated he was opposed to the idea. Here’s the thing: the house was just fine. It was in move in shape, but the homeowners did not want the country style paint and wallpaper choices. They wanted a stark white on white theme throughout the large cape cod. The antique white paint could not remain, nor could the perfectly matched wall paper. Instead she needed a CoCo Chanel look throughout, and I was too stupid to pump my brakes, downshift and park. However, to justify myself a bit, I had only experienced success within my ten years or so of contract painting. I generally enjoyed the process and could not foresee this thing happening to me…ala the Stones “Paint it Black” song. Only my ode would be “Paint it White”. “I see an oak door and I want to paint it white. No colors anymore, I want them to turn white.”

Okay, after a  safe bid of $2500 to do the inside walls and trim, I called on two other paint crews. I had 10 experienced guys on site for most of a week. We never even got upstairs. The paint we bought at Duron just would not cover anything. Barry came to me with his concern. “Just double coat the wall”, I said. “I did already. It’s not covering.” Gulp. “Okay, give it a third coat.” I knew that the labor was far more expensive than the paint, but the homeowners had picked the brand and the anemic bright white. I was floundering. Little did I know that the flat wall paint was the least of my worries. The next day Roger came to me and said, “The trim paint is not drying.” “Say What?” He demonstrated what he meant. “Look. I painted this trim three days ago.” He ran his finger across the windowsill and the shiny paint rolled up into a ball. “Oh no!!” I’d never seen such a thing. I felt panic surge in my stomach. “Wha, wha, wha…” I could not make complete words. My neocortex was shutting down.

I was out of money budgeted to pay my crew. I thanked them and paid them for time in. My partner and I were staring at half a job ahead of us and a completely unfinished story behind us. I was angry at the paint store. I knew something serious was wrong with their paint and I went in on Monday a.m. to make my demands and threats. The regular paint store guys admitted that something was wrong with their paint. It should have covered and hardened but obviously did not. They asked me what I needed. I told them $1500 for the wasted labor, and replacement paint. They nodded and seemed  to agree with my demands. Unfortunately the next day the owner of the store dismissed all my concerns, claiming that the problem was on my side. He made the preposterous charge that I had failed to prep the surfaces and some mystery oil was preventing his paint from adhering to my walls.  Wow, I knew I was completely screwed. I had already paid out more than half of the bid for maybe a quarter of the work done. I had  a lying paint company owner in front of me and angry homeowners behind me. Plus my prophetic and pissed off paint partner was beside me. What a quagmire, a tropical swamp, a… Vietnam of painting.

Well, there it was. I had no way out but to work my way out. My partner stayed as long as he could stomach the drama as Ellen moaned and her husband kvetched. The paint store folks suggested that I use a paint hardener to firm up the bubble gum paint that lacked hardener to begin with. They could not see the irony in their retrofit. I fumed and so did the highly volatile solution. Then I had to use oil based paint on top of the hardener to guarantee results. Had we simply used the right paint to begin with, I would not have this heart ache to report to you now. Meanwhile the cranky homeowner complained of the fumes from the oil based paint while he watched the Dow Jones rise and fall daily, coughing himself into fits of asphyxiation. Ellen tried to appease him and seemed to get a measure of reassurance from my endless presence. I worked evenings, weekends and holidays well into the late fall of that year to expiate myself from my Vietnama drama. In the end I had a personal testimony of pain and suffering that rivaled Mick Jagger’s.  “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes, I turn my head away until my darkness goes.” I wanna see it painted, painted, painted white. Oh the horror!

222. Impaled

Somewhere between the poison toothpick and the

Cold steel heart knife

You were impaled on the wooden spike

Of secret shame

 

It’s a shame you couldn’t wriggle off

Nor touch your feet to walk

Without the spike splitting you in two

 

To talk with someone

Would kill you suddenly

So you chose the quiet death of slowly choking

Slowly choking back the truth…

The names and horrors ached

Like a broken tooth

unmedicated

 

Unmedicated? Not true, alcohol soothed

The terrible nightmares and helped

To vaporize the horrible stares

The horrible stairs led in a spiral dread

Downward to destruction

as toxic termites

Quietly fed

on your soul’s timbers

 

Timber!   Down it all came one day

Lumberjack worms won

And you stood

in shock and dismay

 

[Before a worn out mirror– unable to look or look away]

In shock and dismay you began

Unable to see or hear

The horrible eyes and syllables

of those days

Those dazes of dissociation

When a tiny dancer had to hide

When werewolves razed her village

 

Her village where wolves today graze like sheep

Now perplexes wary witnesses

How could these sheepish wolves be predators?

 

Predators prey on those who pray in vain

Whose veins are broken by angry jaws

that gnaw their victims on wooden stakes

 

With wooden stakes the shepherds watch their flocks

Of wolfsheep in green pastures

“My sheep know me and I my sheep”

“And I know they will attack me

If I don’t play along”

Say the shepherds impaled on wooden stakes.

 

Somewhere between the poisoned toothpick

and the cold steel heart knife.